The 15 Most Useful Languages to Learn

Disclosure: International Relations Careers may be compensated by course providers.

There are a lot of skills needed in the field of international relations. Good communication is one of them, and while that refers to skills like active listening, it can also include knowing different languages. If you’re interested in working or living abroad, odds are you’ll need to know at least one language that’s not your mother tongue. What are the most useful languages to learn? Here are 15 examples:

#1. English

If you’re reading this article, you’re reading in one of the most useful languages you can learn today. According to the Lingua Language Center, English has around 1.45 billion speakers. It’s also the official language in 67 countries. At the time of writing, that makes it the world’s most spoken language. It’s also very useful to know because it’s the official language of global power players like the United States, the UK, NATO, and the EU. It’s also one of the six official languages of the UN, as well as one of the working languages of the Secretariat. What’s the difference between an official and a working language? Official languages are used for all official UN documents while working languages are used for international communications among UN staff.

#2. Chinese (Mandarin)

Chinese is another official UN language. It’s also spoken by over 1 billion people and is the official state language of China. While COVID-19 disrupted the growth of China’s economy, China is still one of the world’s largest economies and very important in the world of international relations. Speaking Mandarin makes a person very valuable to a variety of organizations, including businesses, intergovernmental groups, universities, and more. In addition to mainland China, Chinese is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore (where it’s an official language), Malaysia, and Tibet. Canada, the UK, South Africa, Nigeria, and the United States have lots of Chinese speakers, as well, though many speak Cantonese, which is a popular Chinese dialect.

#3. Russian

Russian is one of the original official UN languages and the official language of the Russian Federation. According to a 2021 Babbel post, it has around 166 million native speakers, which makes it the 8th most widely-spoken language. It’s also the official language of Russia, which is a hugely important figure in Eastern Europe, as well as global politics. It’s used in organizations like the UN, UNESCO, OSCE, the WHO, FAO, and the International Criminal Court. It’s also one of just two official languages (the other is English) on the International Space Station.

#4. French

French is another one of the UN’s original official languages. Why? It was considered “the language of diplomacy.” It’s currently one of the working languages for the UN Secretariat, as well as an official and working language for the EU, UNESCO, NATO, the International Red Cross, and the international courts. It has around 300 million speakers and is the official language (or one of the official languages) in 29 countries, including France, Belgium, Niger, Haiti, Switzerland, and Canada. It’s the world’s fifth most widely-spoken language.

#5. Spanish

Spanish is the official language of 21 countries, including Argentina, Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and Chile. According to the Lingua Language Center, it has around 534 million speakers. Spanish is also one of the UN’s official working languages. For those working in international relations, Spanish is a very useful language to learn as it connects you to South American countries and countries in Europe. Examples of industries that value Spanish include translation/interpretation, education, tourism, diplomacy, trade, and transport.

#6. Arabic

In 1973, the UN’s General Assembly decided to include Arabic as an official and working language for the Assembly and its Main Committees. It’s since been added as a language for UN entities like the Security Council and Economic and Social Council. According to the Lingua Language Center, 372 million people speak Arabic. It’s the official language in 25 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Chad, Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and Egypt. Arabic is an especially useful language for anyone working in business and trade, as well as politics.

#7. Hindi

Hindi is one of the many languages in India, which is the world’s most populous country. Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but the country likely has over 1.4 billion people. According to World Atlas, around 425 million people speak it as a first language while 120 million speak it as a second language. In addition to India, Hindi is spoken in Nepal, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, and the United States. India has a very large economy, so speaking Hindi can be very useful in business, especially in fields like medicine, agriculture, aviation, information technology, and so on. The language is also very valuable in universities and political organizations.

#8. Japanese

Japanese is the official language of Japan, which in 2022, had a population of around 124 million people. Most people living in Japan are ethnically Japanese and speak the language. In the past decades, Japan has grown into the world’s third-largest economy thanks to large industries like agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism. The country’s participation in various international relations organizations also makes Japanese a useful language to learn; Japan is involved in the UN, the International Labour Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Health Organization.

#9. German

According to Class Tracks, around 130 million people speak German. It’s the native language of around 100 million people and is the 12th most widely-spoken language. In Europe, it’s one of the most commonly spoken languages. It’s also an official language of Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Luxemburg, which are all in the EU. For those interested in international business, German is especially useful as the country is one of Europe’s strongest economies. At the time of writing in late May 2023, industry was doing well, the labor market was enjoying a good performance, and the GDP was expected to accelerate. German is also used a lot on the internet.

#10. Korean

Around 77 million people speak Korean, which is the official language in South Korea. South Korea is a key player in the global market, especially in the Internet and technology spheres. In 2023, South Korea was in the top 15 global economies and the 6th-largest exporter. If your international relations interests relate to anything techy, Korean could be an excellent language to learn. Korean is also spoken in North Korea, China, Japan, and Russia.

#11. Turkish

Turkish is an official language in Turkey, Cyprus, and Northern Cyprus. According to the Lingua Language Center, it’s spoken by around 85 million people. The U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship program includes Turkish, which means it considers the language “critical” to the country’s national security and health. Within NATO, which Turkey has been a part of since 1952, the country has the second-largest armed forces after the United States. If you’re interested in working for a government, business, or nonprofit, Turkish is a very valuable language.

#12. Punjabi

Like Turkish, Punjabi is included as a “critical” language for the U.S. State Department. It has around 125 million speakers and is an important language in India and Pakistan. It gets its name from Punjab, which is a province in Pakistan. More than 30% of people in Pakistan speak Punjabi as their native language. Considering Pakistan’s importance in international relations, it makes sense that Punjabi is a useful language to know. Punjab’s industries include agriculture, healthcare, tourism, film, and so on. Interpretation/translation in these fields is especially desirable.

#13. Urdu

Urdu is one of Pakistan’s official languages (the other is English), where it’s also considered the national language. There are around 170 million native speakers living in India and Pakistan, though speakers also live in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, and other parts of the world. Globally, Urdu is the 20th most widely-spoken native language. Conversationally, Urdu is almost identical to Hindi, so if you speak Hindi, you would just need to learn Urdu’s distinct written form. Urdu translation is especially desirable in industries like manufacturing, customer service, digital marketing, education, software, and tourism.

#14. Bengali

Around 250 million people speak Bengali, which is the national language of Bangladesh. It’s also one of India’s many languages, where it’s recognized in the country’s constitution and spoken by around 85 million people. The UK, the United States, and the Middle East are also home to many Bengali speakers. Bengalesh is an important figure on the global stage as it’s grown its economy and become an important partner to countries like the United States. It participates in industries like pharmaceuticals, footwear, agricultural processing, construction, shipbuilding, and more, so it’s a very useful language in business and international trade.

#15. Italian

In the EU, around 67 million people are native speakers, which makes Italian the second most widely-spoken language in the EU. Globally, around 85 million speak Italian. It’s an official language of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and one of the working languages of the Council of Europe. Italian is the official language of Italy, but it’s also the official language of Vatican City (alongside Latin) and San Marino. It’s an official language in Switzerland, too. Italian can be very useful because Italy is the third-largest economy in the EU and one of the largest in the world by annual GDP.